The reality that you must experience yet another abandonment in order to recover from Borderline Personality Disorder is explored.
A borderline who cannot recognize or who refuses to recognize and subsequently articulate his/her intra-psychic pain is stuck. Even in a therapeutic situation or relationship there is little that can be done until the borderline develops a certain amount of self-awareness. Each person with BPD must cultivate what Linehan refers to as an attitude of “willingness” versus “willfulness” which she points out in the Distress Tolerance Module of her DBT Skills Training – the module which contains Linehan’s Radical Acceptance information.
The practice of Radical Acceptance is the way to cultivating a willing attitude. There must be a willingness on the part of the borderline to admit and acknowledge that much of what she thinks she knows and much of her relational style is:
- a re-enactment of past trauma
- not age-appropriate and
- further alienating him/her from self and others which then causes even more pain that is “felt” and expressed in destructive self-sabotaging ways; namely through rage, push/pull, needy-demandingness, lying, sudden cold distancing, manipulation and so forth.
The Challenges to Change in Borderline Personality Disorder
Abandonment, perceived or actual abandonment and its accompanying shame is at the heart of BPD. Both the devastation of one’s past abandonment and one’s fear of future abandonment coupled with all of borderline’s shame create distrust of self in the borderline and distrust of others that fuel negative patterns of thinking that are based in the past and that are re-experienced in ways that obliterate the here and now when the person with BPD is triggered into the often fragmented and dissociative dysregulated emotion that perpetuate one’s sense of being victimized and that obliterate one’s ability to find hope. This abandonment wound in BPD is one of the most, if not the most significant challenges to the kind of change needed for those with BPD to get on and stay on the road to recovery.
Does this mean that one can never change?
For the time that one stays reticent and holds to one’s cognitively-distorted beliefs it would be highly unlikely that one could then change. If one continues to perpetuate his/her “victim mentality” and does not choose to take personal responsibility one will continue to live out one’s past as well as visit it upon others. However, once borderlines begin to understand that there are aspects of their behavior and relational styles that are further defeating their attempts to have their needs met — and begin to be open to taking a look at what they are doing and how they are affecting others, change is then not only possible but it is a natural consequence of such self-examination.
How does change occur?
Change is brought about through incremental steps of increased self-awareness. The process of increasing one’s self-awareness usually involves therapy, as well as reading relevant books. Also extremely important to the process of increasing self-awareness is a willingness and a determination to do what it takes to tolerate being around and with other people. (Without resorting to any “old, borderline” behavior) It is also vital to break any pattern of isolation. This means also learning to behave in ways that make it possible for others to welcome your being around them. This change in behavior must come first. You cannot wait to change how you feel first. How you feel will only change over time and after you have had new, different, and corrective interpersonal relational experiences with other people.
It is the new relational experiences with others that provide the ground-work for the borderline breaking with habitual patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving which are directly related to one’s past. Through learning to relate to others age-appropriately, over time, and through the processing of experiences and interpretations in therapy a borderline can then continue to change and grow.
In my experience of BPD, what I most needed was to grow up emotionally. The backbone of my recovery from BPD had all to do with changing the way that I thought in primitively patterned child-like ways that were not age-appropriate and that were cognitively distorted maladaptive and highly defensive ways of thinking. The way in which I thought caused me to feel certain ways and the ways that I felt caused me to act more like a child than the adult I was “supposed to be”. I had to see through my own behavior. I came to realize that I had been living my life rather on an auto-pilot from the past (very patterned) and that I was relating to everyone as if they were my parents and/or my abusers. This was largely the false self in me when I had BPD. I was perpetuating my the cycle of abuse from my past. While I was very abused in my formative years my relational style was not only one of “constant victim” (often unbeknown to me). It was also one in which I unconsciously projected and transferred onto others (anyone I knew or related to) the abuse that I had suffered. I was a victim of abuse as a child. I believe that it was the abuse which made it impossible for me to “grow up”. I was not able to develop a healthy personality due to the abandonment that the abuse and inconsistent parenting I was exposed to resulted in. So, as I got older, if I related to anyone at all (I mostly isolated myself from others) I was abusive to many people. Borderlines are often abusive to themselves and to others. From my experience, I believe this is because this is how we were taught by example or through circumstances of neglect and enduring the deprivation of the meeting of our basic needs to relate.
In order to change the abusive ways in which I related to others I had to totally break with everything that I learned (in my dysfunctional family of origin) about relating and relationships. This meant that the sum total of any identity that I had formed had to be abandoned and re-formed. In order to heal I had to do the one thing that was most pivotal to my acquiring BPD in the first place; I had to endure being abandoned all over again. This time though, I had to abandon myself as I had been abandoned over and over again by others. What was different though was that I was abandoning my false-self whereas all of my life in continuing to make “borderline” choices I had been re-abandoning my “lost authentic self”.
How is the abandonment wound central to healing?
Stated in an oversimplified way, the essence of BPD is this abandonment wound. It is the original wound that causes so much intra-psychic damage. It is the wound that is the abyss that one is sucked into in the absence of having a “self”, an “identity” an understanding of oneself and one’s place in the world. Why? Well to have an understanding of self, identity, and place in the world one must have a stable sense of a world. In order to have and hold a stable sense of the world around you (in your formative years) it is essential that one’s needs be met. When you live in a state of perpetually unmet nurture and emotional needs you simply cannot develop a healthy personality. This is the plight of each and every borderline.
Rather ironically, then, this abandonment wound must be, in effect, turned in on the borderline, by the borderline, if the borderline is to recover. What does this mean? It means that in order to recover from the initial or original abandonment wound(s) that essentially “caused” the formation of a borderline personality one must abandon all one knows about one’s fractured and incomplete self — one’s un-integrated false self in order to find one’s authentic identity and healthy personality. It’s a bit like “Humpty Dumpty” falling from the wall when a borderline starts to peel away the layers and layers of maladaptive coping skills enmeshed within defense mechanism after defense mechanism. There comes a point where a borderline must further break (temporarily) to allow for the discovery of, connecting to, and the putting back together of his/her authentic self. This further break is the ultimate experiencing, all over again, of the original core abandonment.
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” (Gibran)
It is very very painful. It is the degree to which one can grieve and release the pain of the past plus the pain of the always changing unfolding present that will determine the extent to which one can recover. I experienced this in my recovery as I gained more and more self-awareness and had to concede that though I had felt like a victim encased in the shell of my original abandonment – I had indeed abandoned myself through a series of choices that I made from my teen years up to the age of 30. (It was 11 years after I was diagnosed when I began this process of “authentic self” discovery) It was essential that I abandon all the old ways that I thought, felt and acted. In order to do this one must overcome the natural feelings of resistance that will come up which is in essence a preparing for recovery. Though it felt like I was being “annihilated all over again” there was also a very strong sense that I was finally achieving the much needed separation from my parents. I had lived my life as an extension of my abusive past. I had not formed my own “authentic identity”. I had continued to live my life like a helpless victim when, in actuality, though I was victimized and abused as a child, I then made choice after choice that kept sealing my fate and worsening my personality disorder.
How can one recognize recovery?
Recovery begins when we can cut ourselves free of the patterns. A borderline can begin to do this the second he/she chooses to. Though it is scary and painful and means walking through the darkest inner-caverns of your aching being — abandoning the false-self in search of what has been your lost authentic self will lead you to recovery. Recovery is underway when we stop making the same unsuccessful, unloving, self-sabotaging choices out of some abandoned, wounded sense of helplessness and begin to take responsibility for who we “never were” who we aren’t, what we don’t know, and what we don’t understand — in the search for and fulfillment of who we can be, who we really are and we can learn and go to know and understand — and how difficult it is (certainly feels) to think that we deserve to belong and that we have the a responsibility to not inflict abuse and pain upon ourselves or upon others just because we were so hurt ourselves.
In order to be on a path to recovery you must also break with old patterns of relating to others. You must be vigilant for the people that are just not good for you. The ones with whom you quickly find yourself somewhat enmeshed in old dynamics with. It is as important to pay attention to the over-all dynamic of any relationship as it is to pay attention to your part of it.
The way to stop the hurt, and to begin to recover is by facing your abandonment wound head on. Borderline Personality Disorder warps the mind, fools the senses, traps the true you, deep inside of the false you that you grew up being to survive what you had to survive. It is only by walking down that proverbial dark path that one can find the light of “healthy thinking”, “healthy relating” and a non-personality-disordered-existence. You must remove the many layers of masks and uncover your true face and then learn how to tolerate the vulnerability it takes to show the world your true face — who you really are, once you discover that for yourself.
There is peace to find. There is hope. There is a way out of the pain. It takes time. You will learn new behaviors, ways of thinking, coping and social skills as you make an effort to expose yourself to relating to others for who they are as opposed to who you have “held them up to be” (namely people in your past) It takes work and effort. If you are borderline, you know how much it hurts. If you want to recover, you must be willing and ready to accept some pain. Break free from your past. Abandon all of your old beliefs, your maladaptive coping skills, (the acting-out, the acting-in, the self-harm, the suicidal gestures, the push/pull etc etc) and know that with determined effort and skilled professional help you can heal that abandonment wound and find your authentic self.
Know that once you choose to actively walk the path of recovery it will be a slow process. Be thankful for this though. As you break each old pattern of thought and behavior and work to process it all, grieve it, and release it, know that your healing will unfold at the pace at which you can handle it. Each of us is different with regard to that.
In summary, while change and recovery demand that a borderline, in essence, experience yet another abandonment there is such reward in the final living of past trauma and then letting it go. It will be replaced with new and very rewarding experiences, feelings and relationships. Borderlines can change with determined effort to do so. Borderlines will not change and recover unless they make the decision to do so. That choice is an individual one. There are other mitigating circumstances and co-morbidity realities with other conditions that can compromise a borderline’s ability to awaken to the lost authentic self. As with any other disorder, or challenge in life, the choice to change and to recover can only be made by the individual and no one in anyone’s life can effect this for anyone else.
As someone who has recovered from BPD I can honestly say that the pain of yet another abandonment and learning how to be here for myself and to take care of myself was such a rewarding experience. There is life after BPD. There is life without BPD. Recovery awaits your decision and choice to “walk that way”.
© Ms. A.J. Mahari – December 26, 1999 with additions February 14, 2009